Johnny Washington in his Forest Park apartment. Washington is the first of 25 Cook County drug court graduates to use a Section 8 housing voucher in the suburbs. Without this voucher, Washington said he'd be homeless.
For months Johnny Washington searched for an apartment.
He was newly sober. He had completed anger management classes and other requirements to graduate from the Circuit Court of Cook County's Rehabilitation Alternative Probation Drug Court Program, which emphasizes treatment, not criminalization.
But he couldn't find a place to live and time was running out on his stint in transitional housing.
"I couldn't find anything because everywhere I went they wanted high credit scores and my credit scores weren't that high," said Washington, 66.
Homelessness threatened to upend his recovery from a nearly 50-year heroin addiction.
Then a judge called Washington with good news.
Washington qualified for a new Cook County housing program that helps people who have graduated from drug court get a fresh start. Washington is the first of 25 drug court graduates to use a Section 8 housing voucher in the suburbs.
Washington moved into an apartment this summer in west suburban Forest Park.
Cook County Judge Charles Burns runs the drug court and vouched for Washington.
"He was very structured in his sobriety with his meetings, support groups and that's one of the reasons we targeted him right away to give him a voucher," Burns said.
The judge observed graduates couch surfing, homeless or facing other barriers to housing; in Washington's case bad credit was a roadblock. Finding a place for the newly sober to live is challenging. Washington had been in and out of prison for 15 years before graduating from drug court.
"You can't put him back in the same neighborhood where they know where every single drug dealer is," Burns said.
The pilot housing program came about after a drug court graduation last year. Burns invited Cook County Housing Authority Executive Director Richard Monocchio as a guest.
"I was a convert on day one because we have a very scarce resource in housing assistance. Here you had people who really need it and if they get it are very likely to succeed. So marrying those two concepts made a lot of sense," Monocchio said.
Monocchio got the federal government to sign off on the program.
He said the success of the program rests on the longevity of the participants staying clean and employed. Housing helps the path for self sufficiency, Monocchio said. And data backs him up. This summer, the Metropolitan Planning Council and Illinois Justice Project released a report about how the state could save millions of dollars, if it did more to help people leaving prison find stable housing.
Without this voucher, Washington said he'd be on the street.
Natalie Moore is WBEZ's South Side reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.